In my career spanning close to three decades as a customer experience (CX) empath, I have seen some big changes in the business:customer relationships from very close quarters. The technology that the businesses used when I first dipped my toe into this field in the mid-eighties, for example, has exponentially leapfrogged. Customer service as an industry has matured to become a non-negotiable part of business growth. And most of all, the mindset around CX has changed dramatically.

It’s a bit overwhelming being in the midst of such massive transformation, to be honest, but I believe this is a good place for businesses to be in because chaos leads to order. In situations like these, the best thing businesses can do today is to take stock of where they stand in the context of CX management and how can they leverage it further to accelerate their growth engines.

Below, I reflect on a few global trends in customer experience that all business stakeholders (especially the customer-facing teams) should keep in mind as we enter into the new decade in 2020.

Let your tech stack redefine your CX

The surface area of the business interface is expanding with the advancement of new technologies. Customer engagement and CX, therefore, are no longer limited to face-to-face business interactions or toll-free customer care numbers. The arrival of automation, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), big data, and chatbots into the world of commerce are changing the way businesses handle customer relationships.

Though these technologies are far from perfect, businesses are using them to mimic human behavior and sympathy. Honestly speaking, I don’t think technology will ever be able to entirely proxy humans. But these tools have empowered businesses to be more productive and efficient in their efforts to offer great CX at scale.

Technology has also created a level playing field for all businesses to share the profit pie within the same industry, regardless of their size and financial firepower. For instance, it doesn’t matter anymore if you have a young 10-member e-commerce startup that is competing with a 15-years-old corporate giant. You can integrate your website with Facebook Messenger and use a smart answer bot to capture leads or offer a kickass customer service round-the-clock. All this, at a fraction of the cost of hiring a support team.

Customers today expect instant gratification; they enjoy dealing with businesses that ensure fast response time and 24/7 customer service. They will deliberately abandon businesses that make them jump through endless hoops of automated IVRs or phone trees that take them in circles.

Personalize customer experience (with caution)

A big reason why customers love businesses such as Amazon, Netflix, and Sephora is that these brands offer impressive personalization. These businesses are at the forefront of amazing CX because they know their customers’ needs. Their algorithms are so good at meeting (and exceeding) tailored expectations that it feels like they have telepathic superpower over other businesses.

This trend in personalized CX holds true for B2B as much as for B2C markets. Take for example the growing popularity of brands such as Uberflip and Ceros who have tapped into the emerging market of delivering unique content experiences (ConEx) to unique clients.

The demand for personalized experiences will continue to grow as customers expect more from their favorite brands. You can’t treat customers like cardboard cutouts or box them into vague demographic segments anymore. You have to train your business to offer unique and delightful customer experiences to each and every customer down to their individual level.

When it comes to personalization, the only caveat for businesses is to be cautious about privacy. There is a rising dissent across the consumer communities towards companies that put customer data at risk either by abusing the information for shady business practices or by trading them with other parties. On the other hand, proponents of personalization claim that we might be living in an age of privacy bubble. They maintain that customers are increasingly willing to pay the price of personal data for better experiences as long as it doesn’t breach the boundaries of data ethics.

One of the ways businesses can circumnavigate this tricky situation is by adopting permission-based marketing and complying with standard regulations such as GDPR and PIPEDA. Taking the opt-in marketing route will not only keep your business out of harm’s way but weed out unqualified customers so that you can zero in on building meaningful relationships with customers who consent their will to engage with you.

Embrace value-based marketing

Traditionally, marketing and sales were product-driven, i.e., businesses adopted a “push” strategy to sell their services. But CX, by definition, is all about putting customers at the center of your universe. For your business to crack the CX code, it’s important to flip the equation between your brand and the customers and make them the hero of the story.

How can you do this? Well, you can take a leaf out of Hubspot’s history for inspiration. When Hubspot was born in 2005, they pioneered the concept of “inbound marketing.” The new inbound strategy, along with the rise in popularity of Google as a search engine, reversed the role of businesses and customers. Instead of businesses broadcasting their products to the world, they started creating valuable content that tapped into the buying intent of their customers. This “pull” strategy, combined with the emerging field of search engine optimization (SEO), gave birth to inbound marketing. Soon, it became a leaner, cost-effective, and targeted approach for businesses to attract the right customers.

There are a few ways to leverage value-based marketing and sales to create memorable customer experience. Principally, you should identify what are your customers’ biggest pain points and try to genuinely answer their concerns through your marketing. You should also adopt social selling — a way for your business to build deeper customer relationships and offer customer delight.

This CX philosophy is well demonstrated by some of the world’s best sales professionals such as Joe Girard and Ali Reda. Contrary to all the bad rap that cars salesmen get, these legendary salesmen didn’t just strive to full their yearly sales quota. They went above and beyond to provide lifetime value to each of their buyers which earned them a loyal base of customers and a healthy sales pipeline that never went dry. When you create value for your audience, the right customers will flock to your business like bees to a honey pot.

Create a “wow” factor through branding

An interesting trend — and perhaps an oxymoron — that I am noticing lately is that many corporate brands are trying to position themselves as personal brands while personal brands marketing themselves as business brands. This is especially true in the context of advertising and social media engagement where brands such as Wendy’s, Moosejaw, Tesla, or Enterprise are trying unconventional ways to appear as cool and relatable brands.

This subtle psychological game plan is important for businesses today because consumers today are more drawn to storytelling than plain vanilla advertising gimmicks. Customers are more marketing-averse than ever; they don’t want to be sold. Consumers today want to be informed, engaged, entertained. They don’t want to watch the parade from the sidelines; they want to march along the procession and be part of the spectacle.

What does it mean for your brand? For one, you have to revamp your branding playbook if it doesn’t put CX at its heart. You should stop projecting your brand as a mega-corporation — at least when it comes to engaging your customers. Instead, you should portray your brand as a friendly next-door neighbor who is always ready to help the customers, the way Geico, FedEx, or Google do in their marketing.

Remind your customers that there are humans — just like them — running your business. Personify your brand, be approachable, build one-on-one relationships, and have fun along the way.

Put customers in control

When you offer self-service options to customers, you not only put them in control of their decisions but also automate your marketing and sales functions. Let me reason this by analogy.

Let’s suppose it’s holiday season and you are in the mall shopping for clothes. After hopping across six different shops to find the perfect gift for your mother, you feel very thirsty. Which of the following options do you think you will choose if you had to buy a can of Dr. Pepper to quench your thirst?

a) Would you go through the hassle of walking to the nearest general store, finding the right soda can from the freezer, standing in a queue, exchanging small talk with the clerk, or

b) Would you rather walk to one of the vending machines close to you, feed a dollar in the machine, and buy the drink without all these processes involved?

If you are like me, you would go with b (and that would be a smart move!).

Consumers today don’t want brands to handhold them — they want to be in control of things. Customers don’t want to be spoon-fed on every little thing. They want to discover things at their own pace without having to talk to a business representative, which is why self-service offering is becoming a CX imperative. If this sounds like you, you are not alone. Studies show that most B2B buyers complete 57% of their purchase decision before they get in touch with the respective sales team.

If inbound marketing is an approach to attract the right customers to your business, self-service is a buffet set up for customers to pick and choose what they want. According to Gartner, the current and future generations of customers prefer a do-it-yourself (DIY) approach to discover solutions to their problems over enterprise-led user experiences.

There are a plethora of options for you to offer self-service CX to your prospective buyers. You can set up an interactive chat widget on your website, publish in-depth ebooks or whitepapers for customers to download, build a repository of Knowledge Base article, documentation, video tutorials, guides, and so on.

Offering a self-service experience will not only help you offer an impressive customer experience, but it will also help you create brand stickiness, and free up your sales and support bandwidth by automating these processes. And it saves your customers’ time.

Offer proactive customer support

Have you noticed how customer care is taking over social media? Until a few years back, you had to call or email five different customer care representatives to raise a support ticket and wait for an uncertain number of hours to resolve a return or refund query on your purchase. But now, just blast your rant on Twitter and bam, your query will be solved within minutes.

And if you are late to react to a valid customer query, it can snowball into an angry tweetstorm that will be retweeted and shared to infinity. That, in a nutshell, is the downside of practicing reactive customer service. That kind of passive business affair doesn’t cut it anymore.

In today’s highly competitive business environment, the best reputation your brand can earn is that of a customer-friendly company. You have to be on your toes to offer proactive, over-the-top customer service. Your brand has to develop the sixth sense to anticipate a problem before it brews — and you have to handle it with grace. Offering superior customer support is the real business advantage in today’s date.

This also means you have to optimize all your business touchpoints to be support-ready. A wholesome customer experience is truly omnichannel, i.e., smooth and uniform CX across all devices, platforms, and channels. For example, if your support Don’t stop at being multichannel — which is merely being present everywhere — create a seamless omnichannel customer experience throughout all business interfaces.

Sometimes, this also requires you to expand your support bandwidth or make changes to your hiring pattern. You might have to bite the bullet and rightsize your team, or hire and train support agents that are capable of elevating the standards of your CX. According to the 2015 CEB Frontline Workforce Fit and Engagement Survey, there are 7 types of support rep personalities and among them, the Controller agents are the best problem solvers.

In the end, what matters is not what product are you selling or servicing, but how special you are making your customers feel. Remember this, brands that make their customers feel like VIPs will not only win the market share, they will gain remarkable mindshare that will help them develop a competitive edge.

Take an inside-out CX approach

These days, I hear about digital transformation (DX) in all business circles I am part of. It is forcing organizations to change their business models and adapt to the new marketing reality.

“Our 100% focus is on the customers,” some say, while others add, “we are moving everything to the cloud by the next year.”

While it’s true that customers are in charge or driving digital transformation, the truth is, very few businesses are taking an inside out approach to DX. Businesses are overlooking the fact that EX leads to CX which leads to DX. This is the most organic way to achieve digital transformation.

It might not be very obvious at first, but when you come to think about it, digital transformation begins when you decide to transform your workforce — the most important unit in your business economics. CX is definitely a very powerful tool in achieving DX, but EX is an underlying element that has a network effect in this chain of events.

According to Shankar Iyer, SVP and GM of End User Computing at VMware, “The employee’s experience—from recruitment to retirement—is a boardroom-level conversation at every company. As most organizations go through a digital transformation, employee experience has become the focus of delivery.”

Businesses that want to speed up their DX will have to start expanding their infrastructure capabilities and encourage the adoption of new technology to their workforce. You have to train your manpower to harness their knowledge on leveraging emerging technologies such as drones, IoT, 5G networks, virtual and augmented reality, AI, etc. to drive revenue and boost customer experience. You can drive DX at a market level only when your business is comfortable using these technologies at the ground level of employee experience.

How will you lead your CX in the coming years?

As we stand at the threshold of a new decade of the 21st Century, we find ourselves at an interesting juncture where the new technology is cutting across the conventional business norms and changing customer experience. Technology, along with the radical change in customer Zeitgeist today, is redefining the way we do business.

It’s important that you, as a decision-maker in your business, make sure that your organization aligns well with the above suggestions in order to create a perfect recipe for a world-class customer experience. Creating a future-ready CX is an uphill task, but it starts with the decision to act. But once you start delivering on all the required fronts, you will have small wins that will create a flywheel momentum for your brand to go to the next level. Good luck from all of us at ContactPoint360 for you to triumph customer experience in the coming years.

Elizabeth Sedlacek